My wife and I just finished hosting our regular monthly book group, which is officially titled The Gadianton Polysophical Marching and Chowder Society. (We’re still doing virtual, online meetings.) Our book for this month was Prue Shaw’s Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, which we really enjoyed. It’s an excellent commentary.
On Friday night, our smaller reading group — just five of us — met for dinner and a discussion of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. There is really not much better than good food accompanied by good conversation among good friends. I have to say it now, it’s been good life all in all. It’s really fine to have a chance to hang around. And lie there by the fire and watch the evening tire while all my friends and my sweet lady sit and pass our thoughts around. And talk of poems and prayers and promises and things that we believe in: How sweet it is to love someone, how right it is to care. How long it’s been since yesterday. What about tomorrow. And what about our dreams and all the memories we share?
Rather weirdly — and I have no recollection at all of what it was that led me to it — I first read Dante when I was thirteen. I remember my age because I was reading John Ciardi’s translation of the Inferno when my parents put me on a train from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. My brother did his last year of undergraduate study at BYU, and I got off the train in Provo and stayed with him and his wife.
Sitting near me on the train was a well-dressed Black gentleman with a mustache. I suppose he found it odd that a thirteen-year-old was reading Dante, and we spoke a fair amount during the train ride. I’ve thought ever since (perhaps because he actually identified himself to me by name, though I don’t specifically remember that) that he was Louis Lomax, a then-prominent journalist and author. Anyway, he knew something about Dante, and we had a pleasant conversation that helped to pass the time.
I’ve been interested in Dante ever since that first exposure, I and have re-read the Commedia at least twice, I think. Not, though, as often as I think I should have. Most recently, I read through it in a translation by Anthony Esolen that I quite liked. I’ve even puttered a little bit with the Italian of the original text.
I’ve long been struck by T. S. Eliot’s dictum: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” I’m hesitant to exclude such figures as Chaucer and Milton and Homer and Goethe, but Dante and Shakespeare certainly deserve their exalted station in Eliot’s judgment.
Our GPM&CS discussion group as been functioning, I think, since the 1960s, when it began among some young faculty and graduate students — e.g., Davis Bitton, John L. Sorenson, and Hal Moore — in Santa Barbara, California. Gradually, its members ended up moving to Utah, including to faculty positions at Brigham Young University. My wife and I were invited into the group back in the late 1980s, and are among its newer and younger members. Which is beginning to manifest its inescapable and inevitable implications: We lost Davis Bitton — see his wonderful obituary here — and Hal Moore and the inimitable George Bennion quite some time ago, for example, and John Sorenson a couple of years ago. (Note the mention of the GPM&CS in his obituary.) Lately, the pace of departures has picked up: Todd Britsch, my former dean, died in 2022, as did Joye Bennion, George’s widow, and Renée Allen, the wife of former Assistant Church History James Allen, and Merriam Rogers, the wife of Tom Rogers, who directed the BYU Honors Program during much my undergraduate time at BYU and at a fireside in whose home my future wife and I had one of our first “dates.” (Again, note the mention of our group in Joye Bennion’s obituary.) This year, we’ve lost Grant Beutler and, just last week, Cherry Bushman Silver, who was also a member of a group in which my wife has participated every week for many years now.
Cherry’s passing came more swiftly than I, at least, had expected, even when we knew that she was seriously ill. And this evening’s meeting was particularly poignant, in a way. With her literary background, she would have had much to contribute to tonight’s discussion, and she was missed.
I love Karen Lynn Davidson’s hymn lyrics, as well as their musical setting by A. Laurence Lyon. And they were very much on my mind this evening:
Each life that touches ours for good
Reflects thine own great mercy, Lord;
Thou sendest blessings from above
Thru words and deeds of those who love.
What greater gift dost thou bestow,
What greater goodness can we know
Than Christlike friends, whose gentle ways
Strengthen our faith, enrich our days.
When such a friend from us departs,
We hold forever in our hearts
A sweet and hallowed memory,
Bringing us nearer, Lord, to thee.
For worthy friends whose lives proclaim
Devotion to the Savior’s name,
Who bless our days with peace and love,
We praise thy goodness, Lord, above.